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News/Business. Keith Morrison, Josh Mankiewicz, Hoda Kotb. (2013) Ryan Ferguson, who spent 10 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, reconnects with his family and acclimates to life outside prison. (CC) (Stereo)

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01:01:00

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TV-Y7

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San Francisco, CA, USA

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mpeg2video

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ac3

PIXEL WIDTH
1920

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1080

TOPIC FREQUENCY

Ryan Ferguson 22, Chuck Erickson 10, Jerry Trump 7, Ryan 7, Kathleen Zellner 5, Zellner 4, America 3, Us 3, Missouri 3, Gov 2, Columbia 2, Fergusons 2, Florida 2, Charles Erickson 2, Ferguson 2, Boston 2, Zelner 2, Lester Holt 2, Pepto To-go 1, Overpacked 1,
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  NBC    Dateline NBC    News/Business. Keith Morrison, Josh Mankiewicz, Hoda Kotb.   
   (2013) Ryan Ferguson, who spent 10 years in prison for a...  

    December 2, 2013
    2:00 - 3:01am PST  

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finally, we h is free. >> oh, my god. oh. >> i love you. >> tonight, go inside ryan ferguson's journey from prison to a new life. >> it's very strange. it's surreal. >> it's a story "dateline" has followed for years. a young college student accused of a crime he swore he didn't commit. >> so scary that this can actually happen to someone. >> he was convicted of a halloween night murder. there were fingerprints, foot prints, strands of hair, but here's the thing, none of it
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matched his. so why did he end up in prison? that's the question that still haunts -- >> i lied. i said i remembered things i didn't remember. >> locked behind bars for almost a decade. >> everything you love has been taken from you. >> now, the ending he's been dreaming of. >> ryan! >> the reunion with grandparents he was afraid he would never see again. back with his family in the place he loves. i'm lester holt, and this is "dateline." here's keith morrison with the story of the wrong man. >> no one knows how many there are. sprinkled through the population of america's bursting prisons, the nbt, the falsely convicted. the tiny percentage who have hope, most with names we'll never know.
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but sometimes, rarely, we learn their stories. >> ryan ferguson will soon be a free man. >> like the one about ryan ferguson, the young man in the news recently. >> for a missouri man whose murder conviction has now been overturned. >> ryan ferguson is now a free man. his conviction wiped clean. >> easy, you would think, to hear the news, show he's innocent. out he comes. but that, as you're about to see, isn't how it works in 21st century america. ryan ferguson has been a preoccupation here at "dateline" for years. a prison here on no more's victim road, our familiar destination. >> gave you what, how many years? >> 40 years. >> tonight we'll show you the inside story of his long saga and how he went from college student to convicted murderer to prisoner and, finally, the tourist in his own hometown.
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>> you recognize your town? >> i do recognize it but i always wondered was this particular building over here was, you know. i see it on tv a lot. >> it's been a trip all right. sort of trip that on the wrong night at the wrong place, could happen to almost anyone. this is the cautionary tale of what happened to him. easy to get convicted of something. >> absolutely. >> hard to get out again. >> incredibly difficult. >> the night back when it all began was a rare combination, halloween under a full moon. it was 2001. a college town, columbia, missouri. ryan ferguson and chuck erickson, both at 17, considerably underage, had gained entry to a college bar, a hangout during the by george. >> it's pretty young to be able to get into a collelub. >> it's a college town, university. that's the way everybody lives in college town. everybody wants to be in the
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mix, yeah. >> it was ryan's older sister kelly that helped sneak him? >> i remember seeing ryan and chuck one time in there. ryan was talking to a fa mink go dressed girl who was very tall. they seemed to be having lots of fun. >> outside rocket's music carried through empty streets until closing time, 1:30 a.m. four blocks away it was nearly quitting time at the local paper, the "columbia daily tribune." he headed to his car after a long day at work. it was just about 2:30 when two night janitors from the paper called 911. >> 911, what is your emergency? >> we need someone here at the "columbia daily tribune." >> the "columbia daily tribune" was suddenly at the deadly center of the biggest one in town. >> the sports editor laying on the ground in a pool of blood. >> it just rocks you back on your heels. >> manager editor jim robertson got the call. his friend, heidi, the beloved
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sports editor, was dead. >> we were in shock. the whole newsroom, the whole building was in shock because everybody knew ken. >> it wasn't pretty, murder never is. somebody smashed kent's head, maybe with something like a tire iron and then strangled him. investigators found fingerprints on his car and in the victim's hand, strands of hair which he must surely have pulled from the head of his killer or perhaps two killers? in that call to 911 those night custodians reported this. >> two guys in the area. >> were they white or black? >> white. i would cia 19, 20s. >> do you remember any kind of description at all on these guys? >> i don't think -- i don't think so. they were close to six feet, thin. one of them had blond hair. really, really short blond hair. >> a trail of bloody footprints, two sets of footprints, led from the parking lot toward a college dorm a few blocks away. but a search there turned up
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nobody suspicious. ditto for this composite sketch based on the janitor's descriptions. it's like a pair of ghosts at halloween. >> in columbia, i don't think anybody could have gotten around and not heard about it. >> this is leslie, ryan's mother. >> when you live in a town and there's been a murder and they don't know who committed the murder, you're wondering, you know, is this person still out there? >> but, life goes on. ryan went to college. chuck struggled, booze, drugs, the usual cocktail of trouble. and then two years after kent's murder, the "tribune" ran an anniversary story printed what details were known all over again. and a couple of months later, chuck was in the sauce and he ran into ryan home from college for the holidays. >> he says, hey, man, remember hanging out on halloween a couple years back going to the
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club? yeah. he said, do you know if i had anything to do with that crime that was committed against this guy who was killed. and at that point, you know, i'm kind of freaked out. it was night. i'm outside. it's passed midnight. and this guy is talking about do i know if he's involved in a murder. >> ryan shook it off. he said, had to be chuck's idea, a morbid joke. but it wasn't. chuck told other friends about his weird dream-like notion. and before long, someone took him seriously and called the police. >> you know the reporter at the "tribune" that was murdered and no one found out who it was? >> uh-huh. >> i know what happened and i know the murderer. >> and a dead case came roaring back to life. what happened next? now, that's where the real mystery lies. when we come back, you'll hear two very different stories about that night. one from chuck erickson -- >> i remember seeing ryan
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huddling over this guy. i think i asked him if he was dead. ryan said, yes, he was dead. >> another from ryan ferguson. >> i had nothing to do with this whatsoever. the arteries of your dishwasher are constantly clogging up
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for two years had come up empty. not one solid lead in the kent heithholt murder and now was this kid, so they've been told, who knew the whole story, chapter and verse. >> let's go it just one more time, okay? >> they brought chuck erickson in for questioning but in the chair he went all vague on them. >> it's just so foggy. >> so, was he backing out? >> i could just be sitting here advocating all of this and not know. like i don't know. i don't. >> but they talked. there are ways to ask questions. during a long conversation chuck seemed to remember a whole lot of things, detailed things. >> okay.
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did you see blood coming from him? >> yeah. >> okay. >> the motive, he said, was robbery, money to buy more drinks back at the bar. >> is this at closing time? >> this was before that. >> okay. >> it made perfect sense a fair-skinned teenager who went out drinking a few blocks from the newspaper. but remember, the custodian saw two young men from the scene and they tracked two bloody footprints. and here it was, ryan ferguson's fate was sealed. >> i remember seeing ryan hovering over this guy. >> things began happening very, very fast. ryan, remember, was at college, in a different town. and was puzzled, he said, when a strange van followed him home from school. it was when he pulled up to his door that he was surrounded by police. >> what happened when you got to the police department? >> they tell me they're
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arresting me on suspicion of a murder. and at that point i'm just like, oh, my goodness, this is -- this is absurd. >> they asked about that halloween and ryan told detectives he left the bar with chuck at closing time, 1:30 a.m., and then dropped chuck off at his house, went home, and went to bed. >> i knew that i had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever. >> but even as he sat here in an interrogation room denying he had anything to do with the murder, the news of his arrest was on tv. >> there is a big break tonight in the murder of former columbia "tribune" sports editor kent heitholt. >> ryan's father got the news from a reporter and a friend watching tv called leslie. >> my first reaction was just, i said, well, it's not our ryan. it has to be another ryan ferguson. >> impossible, not sweet, loving, loveable ryan. not a violent bone in that boy's body, said his father bill. >> he didn't have that
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mentality. all of a sudden for him to be accuse of a heinous murder is beyond comprehension. >> you have the right to remain silent. >> but just like that, ryan ferguson slipped from care free college student to the town's most heinous murder suspect and still, he failed to understand what was in store. as he waited eagerly for his trial, convinced a jury would see that he was telling the truth, and chuck was clearly confused. >> isn't it possible that you did have enough to drink that you would repressed your own memories, that you're in a fog, you didn't know what you had done? >> absolutely not. absolutely not. >> are you sure of that now, ryan? >> absolutely. no doubt in my mind. i know exactly what i did that night. >> chuck's fate was determined quickly. he took a plea deal, 25 years in exchange for agreeing to testify against ryan. and that's what he did. at ryan's trial in 2005 chuck
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reenacted what he said they did to poor kent heitholt. hit him on the head with a tool from ryan's car and then ryan strangled him with a belt. >> he had his foot on his back, on the victim's back. and he's pulling up on the belt like this. >> strangled him to death. >> the prosecutor didn't present dna or fingerprint evidence linking ryan to the bloody scene but perhaps he didn't have to because he had chuck. and he had this man. his name -- >> jerry trump. >> might want to remember that name. jerry trump is one of the janitors who called 911 the night of the murder, the man who reported seeing two young men lurking near the victim's car. >> do you remember any kind of description at all on these guys? >> i don't think -- i don't know. they were close to six feet. >> at the time of the killing, trump told police he wasn't sure he would be able to pick out a suspect. but now in court, his memory had
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improved. >> would you point to that individual or individuals, please? >> yes. >> ryan took the stand in his own defense, a ringing and determined denial. >> did you go to the "tribune" parking lot? >> no. >> did you see kent h,itholt anywhere? >> no. >> did you participate in this murder. >> no. >> how could a jury believe otherwise, he thought? there was evidence at the crime scene, after all, footprints, fingerprints, the hair in the victim's hand and none of it matched ryan. it was a friday evening when the jury went out. and that same friday evening when they came back, a brisk pre-weekend deliberation. >> we the jury find defendant ryan william ferguson guilty of murder in the second degree. >> he didn't show much on the outside, but now finally he understood what had happened to him. the sentence was 40 years. and the heitholt's felt they were getting that thing people
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call closure. >> i'm glad that finally i can remember him as just my dad and someone that was loved by everyone. >> kent heitholt's paper "the tribune" put the story to bed, perhaps for good. but ryan's family felt the polar opposite of relief. the indulgent sister who sneaked him into the bar wrestle with debilitating remorse. >> of course, i felt very guilty because not only was he down there because of me but i also got him into a bar under age. so it just looks really bad. >> and ryan's parents slipped into a world in which life did not make sense at all. >> you almost feel like you're stepping back from yourself. >> yeah. >> and you're watching other people, yourself, going through this because it can't really be your life. it can't be you going through this. but no one in this case was about to give up.
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ryan's dad fights to prove his innocence and finds a witness with a new story. >> i said, so, the person you saw, was that ryan ferguson? she goes, no, it was not. >> when "dateline" continues.
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the arrest, the trial, the verdict. but now a convicted murderer at 21, ryan ferguson was, as they say, down for a very long time. >> they gaye you, what, how many years? >> 40 years. >> 40 years. >> 40 years. >> life was on hold for his stunned family. >> the whole thing is just so scary to me, that this can actually happen to someone. >> and how do you get over a thing like that? i mean -- >> you don't get over it. you get dizzy. that's what we did. we're not over it.
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we're just busy. >> busy from that day forth trying to prove what was plainly obvious to them, that ryan was innocent. his dad, bill, was certain there was evidence out there, if only he could find it. >> one little piece of information could break it? >> make a big difference. >> it was often nighttime when bill ferguson wandered through columbia's downtown, returning to the neighborhood where it happened. puds r puzzling out clues. >> what is it about this place that tells you your son didn't do it? >> well, it's not so much this place. it's what happened to this place. the bar closed at 1:30. >> why would ryan and chuck commit murder and robbery after 2:00 a.m. to go back to a bar that had been closed for an hour? and there was something else that kept nagging at bill, that 911 call the night of the murder. >> we need someone here at the "columbia daily tribune." >> only the male janitor identified ryan. what about the woman on the 911 tape? she testified, too, but on the stand, she wasn't asked to point
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out ryan. >> i became very suspicious. i'm saying, wait a second, she's a witness. >> bill tracked her down and, here was the kind of bingo bill was looking for. >> i said, so, the person you saw, the person you did the composite of, was that ryan ferguson? she goes, no, that was not. i said, was it chuck erickson? she said, no, it was not. >> once more, she said, she told the prosecutor years earlier, before the trial. with that new information ryan fou filed an appeal and his dad was hopeful. >> we just know if we could ever get in the courtroom and present the evidence, well, ryan will be found innocent. >> as the fergusons were about to find out, for the first but not last time, overturning a murder conviction is a very difficult thing to do. the appeal was denied. that new story from the janitor deemed not credible. but give up? no. even when they ran through their
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life savings, even when a raft of legal appeals went nowhere. >> every time they come back and they deny any motion or they deny any appeal, you know, you just have taken another two or three years of my life for nothing. >> and still, nearly four decades to go. >> if you have to serve that, you come out a senior citizen if you're still alive. >> unfortunately. but at the end of the day you never know what's going to happen. >> well, you don't, do you? just when ryan seemed to be almost out of options all together, an attorney named kat tlooen zelner agreed to take a look at the case. she met with ryan and decided to take it on. pro bono. >> nothing as riveting of this, when the trial has been lost, everything's been lost and you've got someone who is innocent. it's like the ultimate chal lech, i think. >> what made you think this person definite lly innocent?
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>> it was really ryan. it was really my interaction with them. >> zelner has won the release of 15 men wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. but this, she had never seen anything like it. because in this strange case, she thought, there were two innocent men, ryan and chuck, his accuser, a confused young man, but not a killer. >> what was put on at this trial was a completely fabricated case and the reason it worked was because the jury could not understand why someone would confess to a crime they didn't commit and then take a 25-year sentence. >> and a verdict rendered by a jury of one's peers is, it's almost secret, zelner would have to find new information that the jurors could not have heard, or show that the prosecution of the case was not fair.
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she had just begun investigating when a gift arrived. sort of thing an attorney can only dream about. it was a letter, not to her, to ryan. >> i get this letter and it's from charles erickson. i'm like, what could this possibly say. >> oh, now, this, this could change everything. just maybe not in the way anyone expected. coming up -- >> i lied and said i remembered things i didn't remember. >> chuck erickson is back on the stand, but he's not the only one who has changed his story. >> i'd like to have forgiveness from ryan and his family.
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behind bars for five years, but thereafter chuck erickson told a tale of murder, said they killed a man together one halloween night. this condemning finger stabbing accusation in court was the last time ryan had seen or heard a
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single word from his former friend. so it was a shock the day that letter arrived in the prison mail room from chuck. >> basically just says, send an attorney. don't tell anybody that you're doing it. >> send an attorney to see him? >> yeah. >> that was in 2009. as luck would have it, kathleen zellner had just signed on to the case. she went to the prison where chuck was doing time, and he handed her a written statement. >> i thought, oh, my god, he's retelling this story but now ryan is not the killer. >> he read his new version of events on camera. >> i made up what i said about ryan being on top of the victim. >> are you saying today that you are the sole murderer of kent heitholt? >> that's correct, yes. >> it must have been a great day for you? >> it was. but i know how much work it is to undo these things. to me, it was just the first step. >> yet, it was puzzling, too. zellner was absolutely convinced
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neither chuck nor ryan was anywhere near the murder. she and ryan believed chuck was still confused. >> so the reality that he doesn't know what happened that night and he's trying to put these things together. >> did that change everything? not really. the attorney did more research, interviewed other witnesses, filed paperwork. two years went by. and then in the spring of 2012, a hearing was called. ryan's dad physically carried boxes of documents into the courthouse. attorney kathleen zellner and her team huddled at a nearby hotel to prepare. >> ms. zellner? >> your honor, we're here -- >> the next morning his attorney presented several pieces of evidence not heard before. like this story from a girl who saw ryan and chuck drive off at 1:30, just as ryan had always claimed. >> and did you actually see them drive away? >> yes.
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>> the deccore of the case was right here. chuck erickson was now face to face with ryan since the trial. >> this testimony that he made up during the trial took my life. and, you know, it's crazy to believe that his testimony now could give me life back. >> in that taped statement back in the prison chuck said quite clearly that he, not ryan, killed kent heitholt. was that the story he would tell today? >> do you remember killing mr. heitholt? >> no. >> as he spoke it became perfectly clear his story had changed again. now chuck was saying he had no memory at all of what he and ryan did on halloween night. blacked out after drinking too much. and more important, he never did remember. >> i lied and said i remembered things i didn't remember and said he did stuff that i don't remember him doing or me doing. >> how can he not know?
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i mean, committing or not committing a murder, how can you not know? >> that is a very baffling thing to myself and everyone, i think. he was asleep that night. and i dropped him off at home. >> so what to make of the change? well, ryan's side had always believed chuck was innocent, too. his original confession, a false one. now in court zellner argued that when he confessed and implicated ryan chuck was a confused young man, parroting back information an over zealous interrogator presented him. another example, so confident during the trial it was a belt, but during his interrogation, he seemed to have no idea. so they told him. >> i know -- >> no, i think it was a shirt or something. >> i know it wasn't a shirt. >> maybe a bungee cord? i don't know.
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something from his car. i don't know why he would have a rope in his car. >> i know for a fact his belt was ripped off from his pants. >> really? >> do you see a belt in ryan's hand? something that looked like a rope maybe or a bungee cord? >> i don't know. >> and when his memory continued to be foggy -- >> now, you better start thinking very clearly. >> okay. >> because it's you that is on this chopping block. >> why did you play that little piece of interrogation? >> because it shows the tremendous pressure he was under. when charles erickson is explained, i don't have a memory of this. he's like, i don't want any hearing of that. you're going to have a memory of it, i'm going to tell you what your memory is. he was right in his face. >> now on the stand chuck said he wanted to take it all back. >> i don't want to die, you know, knowing that i -- i did the wrong thing. >> ryan's attorney knew, of course, that chuck and his ever
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evolving story might be hard to believe so she had one more card ready to play. >> would you state your -- >> quite literally. >> jerry trump. >> the trump card. remember that night janitor at the newspaper, the man who pointed an accusing finger at ryan during the 2005 trial? jerry trump? zellner asked trump a simple question. how in heaven's name was he able to identify ryan as the young man he said he saw in a dark unlit parking lot years earlier. and here it came, a startling accusation. jerry trump said he was just doing what he thought the prosecutor wanted him to do. >> he said we're fairly sure we have the two guys that killed mr. heitholt. and we need you to identify them. >> and so trump said, he lied. >> and when you pointed to ryan ferguson in the courtroom and you said, that's the person you saw at the "columbia tribune"
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parking lot, was that true or false? >> false. >> so are you testifying with the understanding that by telling this testimony you could be charge with perjury? >> yes, i am. >> do you anticipate or want anything for doing this? >> yes. i'd like to have forgiveness from ryan and his -- and his family. >> ryan's attorney had no further questions. let the emotion hang in the air. and then it was the state's turn. did the assistant attorney general admit an error, send everybody including ryan home? no, the state stood by the original prosecution. categorically deny jerry trump's claims and challenged chuck erickson on the stand. >> you're saying that you have a willingness to say anything you
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need to say to get ryan out? >> at the time, i did. am i telling the truth? i do expect him to believe it? no, i don't expect him to believe it. >> who would the judge believe? ryan went back to the prison and waited one month, two, four, six months he counted from his cell. he thought about his grandparents in florida, allowed him himself to hope he would see them soon. then it was halloween again, 2012, the 11th anniversary of kent heitholt's anniversary, the guard came to see ryan. his lawyer was on the phone. >> they called me back out there and said you have an attorney phone call. so i figured -- >> attorney phone call. >> yes. >> this could be it. >> this could be it. >> yeah. >> right then. >> what was it like? >> i couldn't even really think. you know, i was just -- just had to put one foot ahead of the other. and then i got on the phone with my attorney and the first thing she says is, you know, i got a bit of bad news. and basically i didn't hear anything after that. coming up --
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>> the most difficult thing i ever heard. >> for ryan, a terrible blow. >> he was at the end of the rope. it was almost over for him. >> but team ryan decides to go for a legal hail mary pass. would it work? when "dateline" continues. i started a week ago going pro with crest pro-health. since i've been using crest pro-health, i've noticed a huge improvement. [ male announcer ] go pro. for a clean that's up to four times better, try these crest pro-health products together. the toothpaste is really awesome. it cleans a lot.
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ryan ferguson walked prison hallways with a lighter step after his lawyers presented what he believed was a compelling case for overturning his murder conviction. >> ryan ferguson is actually innocent. >> and then, months later, he was called to the prison phone and kathleen zellner broke the news. the appeal was denied. time, once again, stood still. >> devastating, really, because everything that you cared about, everything that you believe in, everything that you loved has been taken from you for no reason. >> a judge denied convicted killer ryan ferguson a new trial. >> in the same way he found out his son had been arrested for murder, bill ferguson learned ryan's fate from a reporter. >> and she says, oh, i just want to know if you want to make a comment on judge green's ruling. and i'm thinking, what? what ruling?
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and she goes, well, he just -- oh, my god, you don't know, do you? i don't know. and -- >> that was it. >> yeah. >> finally i got ahold of my dad and, you know, he was trying to hold it together, but even his voice cracked, you know. and that was -- the worst sound i've ever heard in my life, the most difficult thing i've probably ever heard. >> you were locked down? >> yes. at that moment you feel so empty and so alone and hopeless, you know? >> and why? in his ruling the judge said chuck erickson was completely fabricating the stories he told at the hearing. and while the judge did believe jerry trump, he said that his lie was immaterial, not enough
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to overturn the jury's verdict. >> after the witnesses recanted and the court said it wasn't enough, i got very concerned. so i felt like it was a life and death situation. >> one more legal maneuver to try. a habeas petition filed in a higher court, a missouri court of appeals. zellner knew it was a long shot. the vast majority of these fail. >> he was at the end of the road. last time. it was almost over for him. >> so she did it. filed the paper, 154 pages of it, and waited. and inside the state prison, ryan ferguson had learned not to expect anything. >> are you allowing yourself to imagine, you know, next week, next month, next year, what i'll do on the outside? >> it's a long way away right now. >> but outside the walls, far away from the courts in the virtual world, something funny was happening. support for ryan was growing.
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friends and family and complete strangers from around the world were posting messages and photos demanding free ryan ferguson. an online petition to free him gathered signatures by the thousands. and then just this past september a glimmer of hope. ryan had been granted a hearing. >> the honorable court of appeals at the west -- >> his lawyer had 15 minutes to tell ryan's story to a panel of three judges about the witnesses who said they lied, the mistakes by the prosecution, and the crime scene that told a tale of innocence. >> mr. ferguson and mr. erickson were excluded from the physical evidence. >> big day for you? >> it was. big day for us. big day for ryan. >> this time ryan's dad decided he wasn't going to sit around and wait for the judges to rule. he set off on a road trip to share his unshakeable faith in his son. >> and they found the dna did
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not match him at all. >> in a car emblazoned with his son's face and those same two words "free ryan". then one cold nv morning just after another halloween the fergusons learned it was decision day. no state courtroom this time. the news came in the most modern of ways, hovering over a computer screen. bill and leslie, together, logged on to the appeals court website. >> we were doing the same thing, refresh, refresh. then it flashed up on the screen and just for a split second i saw "rye kwan." coming up, the news that ryan and his family were waiting on for so long. >> man, i'm trying not to have a heart attack. >> and the reunion he's been dreaming of.
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ryan ferguson's parents huddled over the computer. couldn't quite get the web page to settle down. >> it seemed like an eternity. bring it up. bring it up. where is it? >> and then suddenly, here it was. and it was stunning. the news for the first time in their family's decade long saga was good, as good as good could be. >> it was amazing. amazing to read that. >> ryan ferguson's conviction was thrown out by the court. citing a pattern of evidence withheld by the prosecution. ferguson's conviction, said the judges, all the judges, is not a verdict worthy of either judicial or public confidence. >> we had been thinking about it and dreaming about it for 9 1/2 years. >> in prison ryan got word to call his attorney kathleen zellner. >> man, i'm just trying to not have a heart attack. >> and she told him the court had overturned his guilty verdict. >> what dealing comes over you when you hear that? >> it was just pure relief.
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and that's all i could feel at that moment was just, you know, thank goodness this is finally over. >> but, of course, it wasn't completely over. it doesn't work that way. ryan's conviction was thrown out but the way the law works, the prosecutor could rearrest him, charge him with murder, and try him again. until the prosecutor decided whether to charge him or not, ryan had to stay in prison and wait. >> this battle makes you stop. >> here he was, no longer a felon, but still behind bars. wel while he waited, we waited with him. the state's decision, let him go or not, was due this very day, any minute, any hour. >> on a high one minute and then you're just really positive and fearful the next minute. it's a roller coaster, really. >> we posed for pictures. joked around a bit.
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ryan, know that any second now, the decision might come down. and then our allotted time was up. they led him back to his cell. and not much more than an hour later, this from a one sentence press release, the attorney general's office will not retry or pursue further action against ryan ferguson at this time. >> it was unbelievable. >> kathleen zellner rushed to the prison but they were separated by glass. he wasn't allowed in to talk to him and he didn't know. she scribbled on a piece of blue paper, held it up to the window, "it is over." >> he -- he was transformed as a person just in those few seconds. >> ryan's parents arrived to scoop him up and take him home but were prevented from entering the prison grounds. >> i told you never believe anything until ryan is actually
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in the car. >> but wasn it really finally over? inside the prison, where ryan had put on street clothes he was abruptly told, take them off. they put him back in the orange jump suit and shackled, loaded him into the van. drove him to the boone county jail. >> i felt like, this is -- this is beyond belief this is happening. >> ryan, terrified, feared he was to be arrested again. >> nobody knew what they were doing. i think everyone was trying to do the right thing but everyone was worried about procedure. >> eventually the authorities straightened things out and it happened, it ended, 12 years and 12 days after that halloween moon. it was truly and finally over. ryan rode to freedom in the ryan mobile, the car his father had driven all around the country to bring attention to his cause. [ applause ]
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in just a few hours, ryan had come out of the prison cell and now confronted the packed hall and came off like a practiced politician. >> thank you. >> aware that others weren't so lucky. >> to get arrested and to get charged for a crime you didn't commit, it's incredibly easy. and you can lose your life very fast. but to get out of prison, it takes an army, as you can see, an incredible group of individuals, family, friends. >> by his side, his girlfriend, his mother, and his father bill, without whom none of this ever could or would have happened. >> you know, i just have the most amazing family and i love you guys so much. >> his sister who helped a little brother sneak into the bar that halloween 12 years ago was away, couldn't be here.
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until suddenly, there she was. and the world class lawyer -- >> and this is -- this is how i knew it was over. >> -- who recognizing an injustice offered to work for free. >> i knew he was innocent, so my firm spent over 3,000 hours, hired experts, and spent a million dollars. but it was the best million dollars i ever spent. ever. it was great. would do it again. >> there is still unfinished business in this story. the family of kent heitholt may have fewer answers now than ten years ago and also the latest developments painful. the fergusons have offered a $10,000 reward for tips in the case. >> hope the heitholt family will
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get the information they need to move forward in their lives. >> ryan's family also vowed to help free chuck erickson, the man whose testimony put him behind bars in the first place. but for the moment, ryan has some adjusting to do. freedom is sweet. >> the pillows are really big and fluffy. >> but as everybody knows, it's not all straightforward. >> since this morning i started to get stressed out about a few things because it's strange to me. >> industristressed out about w? >> i don't know. it's a whole different life. it's a whole lot to get used to. got to figure out your way around this world, you know, because i know what to do in prison. i know where to be and when to be there and how to do things. out here, it's completely different environment, you know? and i got to find my way, essentially. >> going to ring it? >> one more thing to do, as he launched his brand new life. visit the grandparents in
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florida he feared he would never see again. >> so strange. it's been so long. >> and so we arranged this. >> oh, my god. >> how's it going? >> i love you. >> i love you, man. how have you been? >> i'm fine. good. >> hug mom. >> ryan. how have you been? >> it's been a long time. >> too long. >> and then the next morning the sun rose over the sea and ryan ferguson breathes in the ocean air, felt the world open around him, touched his feet to the warm sand and life began anew. >> to freedom and great family. that's all for now. i'm lester holt. thanks for joining us.
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this sunday, the race to fix the president's health care plan takes on new urgency as a key deadline is reached. >> there are thousands of people every single day who are getting health care for the first time. and by the way, the website is continually working better, so check it out. >> but is it working as well as it should be? with president obama's promises to fix healthcare.gov, will the website be fixed well enough to handle the millions of people that could sign up this month? and what will be the impact of obama care on the 2014 elections, and even perhaps the 2016 presidential race? plus, an historic week for pope francis with his first major statement, attacking what he calls, quote, the idolatry of money. what continues is a whirlwind
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change for the vatican. i'll go one on one with cardinal timothy dolan of new york. he is one of the leading cardinals in america. he talks about why the church has turned against obama care and why the church has been outmarketed on gay marriage. nbc correspondent harry smith with the story of the survivor of the boston marathon bombing. he represents the true meaning of boston strong. i'm david gregory onand this is "meet the press" on sunday, december 1st. good sunday morning. a big weekend for the future of president obama's landmark health care legislation, two months to the day since the troubled launch of heal healthcare.gov, they put out a report this morning saying they're making dramatic progress
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and the team is meeting with private sector velocity and effectiveness. that's how the website apparently is working. it also says the site's capacity has been expanded to handle 50,000 users at once along with improved response times and decreased error rates. but the obama administration has downplayed expectations in the past week saying the man could actually outweigh capacity, and today's report indicates there is still more work to be done. the real test lies ahead when millions of uninsured americans could try to enroll by an initial december 23rd deadline. we have mike rogers of michigan. he also sits on the on us and commerce committee over the jurisdiction of health and human services. welcome to both of you and welcome to "meet t